Saturday, December 08, 2012

Hannibal and his Elephants - An Ineradicable Myth?

If you talk to the average person-in-the-street, very often all they will be able to tell you about Hannibal is that he took elephants across the Alps.
But just how important a part did elephants play in Hannibal’s battle-strategy?

I thought I’d start by doing a bit of statistical analysis.

Don’t get over-excited – I just did word-searches for a spectrum of 20 ‘military’ words – from ‘Africans’ through to ‘Troops’. The list included general terms such as ‘army’; kinds of soldier such as ‘cavalry’; names of the Carthaginian leaders including ‘Hannibal’; the different nationalities of soldiers (e.g. ‘Spaniards’); and four different kinds of weapons – javelin, shield, sling and sword. 

 And ‘elephants’, of course.

Then I saw how many times they cropped up in Book 3 of Paton’s translation of Polybius, and in Books 21-22 of Roberts’s translation of Livy … i.e. the sections of their histories which deal with the period from Saguntum to Cannae. 

In all, my list of 20 words together appeared a total of 1500 times.

I only used the translations, which is a BIG negative – the proper way to do it would have been to go in and count from the original Latin and Greek texts. But would the results have been worth the effort – it’s just a rough head-count at best. So I added up my words and looked at the results.

Actually, despite all the caveats, the results were rather interesting!

Some of the results were no-brainers. The name ‘Hannibal’ was mentioned 350 times in the two translations – four times as often as Hasdrubal, Mago and Maharbal added together. Of course he was – these books are about Hannibal’s invasion of Italy – they focus on HIM!

Other results set you thinking. 

Both writers were much more likely to mention the ‘cavalry’ (or ‘horse’) than they were the ‘infantry’ (or ‘foot’).

When you actually read the books, the role of cavalry seems much over-rated – they were useless over the Alps, fought fruitlessly at Ticinus, made little difference at Trebia, mopped up at Trasimene and got off their horses and fought on foot at Cannae. 
But overall the ‘cavalry’ got twice as many mentions as the PBI, slogging it out wretchedly in the centre. 
I wonder why this was? Was it because both writers regarded cavalry as the ‘war-winning weapon’ and attributed Hannibal’s success to his superiority of cavalry? Or was it simply because the cavalry were just so much more glamorous – the fighter pilots of their day? 

Again, Livy mentioned Maharbal more than three times as often as Polybius – but then we know that Maharbal was important for Livy’s structural theme, and played a key part in exposing what Livy regarded as Hannibal’s ‘fatal flaw’ (his inability to capitalise on his victories).

Other results were just as conspicuous, but left you guessing as to their significance. Why was Polybius more than twice as likely as Livy to use a word translated as ‘troops’? Why did Polybius overwhelmingly use the word ‘Celt’, but Livy the term ‘Gaul’?

And why did Livy (supposedly the writer who lacked military experience and wrote only to thrill) mention the dull, nitty-gritty matters of baggage and weapons twice as regularly as Polybius (who is supposed to have had been a military commander)? My own suggestion for this would be that Livy based his account to a greater degree on Coelius (who had been a real soldier in the war), whereas Polybius had swanned around talking to generals and politicians – so Livy was always going to get the more down-to-earth perspective – but I suspect your guess is as good as mine on this!

Oh – and the elephants?

Well, they got a good airing – more than I expected. Polybius mentioned them 19 times, Livy 18. In terms of my word-count, they accounted for 2% of the coverage. The word ‘elephant’ was about as prominent in the text as ‘Spaniards’ and ‘Africans’, and significantly more frequent than 'Baggage', 'Mago' and 'Maharbal'.

Have the Elephants been Over-Glamorised?
If we were to try to turn these numerical word-counts into measures of significance, however, would the results be valid? Were Hannibal’s elephants REALLY as important in his battles as the Spaniards and the Africans, or much more important than the baggage train, Mago and Maharbal?

My suggestion would be clearly not. Loss of significant sections of his infantry, or of two of his leading commanders, or of his baggage, would have seriously jeopardised (if not destroyed) Hannibal's military strength. Loss of his elephants would not – and at Cannae did not 
 have any effect at all.

In fact, both Polybius and Livy portray the elephants as a significant liability.

Against barbarians, maybe, elephants had a part to play. For instance, they helped stop the
Carpentani on the Tagus, rushing along the bank crushing the enemy as they tried to cross the river (Polybius 3.14.6). 

And over the Alps (Polybius 3.53.8):
‘the enemy never dared to approach that part of the column in which these animals were, being terrified by the strangeness of their appearance’.

Otherwise, however, elephants were a problem.

1. They significantly held up Hannibal’s progress at the Rhone (
Polybius 3.42.10) and in the Alps (Polybius 3.53.8).

2. And in battle against the Romans they were a two-edged weapon indeed. We hear nothing about the elephants being used in battle at all until Trebia – when, according to Livy (21.55-56):

‘some skirmishers who had been placed where they could attack these animals flung darts at them and drove them off, and rushed after them, stabbing them under their tails, where the skin is soft and easily penetrated; maddened with pain and terror, they were beginning to rush wildly on their own men’.
Actually, if we are to believe Livy – which of course we aren’t – the elephants seem to have done this at most battles they were involved in!  They certainly did so at Zama, where Scipio had left corridors for them to pass down safely and, when Hannibal ordered the elephants to attack (Polybius 15.12.2):
‘When the trumpets and bugles sounded shrilly from all sides, some of the animals took fright and at once turned tail and rushed back upon the Numidians who had come up to help the Carthaginians’.
3. Finally, according to Polybius, the cold at Trebia killed all-but-one of them. That sole animal at least carried the half-blind Hannibal across the Arno marshes before pegging out itself.

... which left Hannibal to achieve his greatest military success – at Cannae – completely elephantless.
Perhaps there is a lesson there.

We perhaps need to be careful before we write off the elephants as a military weapon. We need to remember that part of Livy’s purpose was to exaggerate the Roman military achievement – at Trebia, he tells us: ‘even, contrary to all expectation, against the elephants’!
So we need to be aware that part of the elephants’ apparent lack of military potency might be a hostile press!
And I suspect it is also significant that, at Scipio’s final peace with Carthage in 201bc, one of the punitive clauses was that Carthage had to surrender all its war-elephants (one is reminded of the Treaty of Versailles) … so elephants cannot have been so very pathetic a weapon.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that there is a mismatch between the prominence of elephants in the texts of Polybius and Livy, and in their contribution to Hannibal’s war-effort in real life.

Why was this? I suspect we don’t have to look far for an answer.

The idea of taking a troops of elephants over the Alps was as exciting and romantic in Polybius’s and Livy’s day as it still is today. And the thought of standing there with nothing other than a sharpened stick facing a charging elephant in battle was as terrifying then as it is today!

At the Olympics opening ceremony, the Queen was only one person in a crowd of thousands – but the next day all the newspapers were full of her leap from a helicopter (even though we all knew she hadn't actually made the leap herself). In much the same way – whatever they REALLY achieved – the elephants were the celebrity participants in Hannibal’s army and, whenever they turned up, they got a fascinated write-up.

Like it or not, unrepresentative myth that it is, Hannibal will ALWAYS be ‘the elephant general’.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

The meeting between Hannibal and Scipio at Naragarra

I suspect that most teenagers reading Hannibal's and Scipio's speeches at their 'conference' before the battle of Zama will see them as long-winded and boring.  
Actually, they go to the core of what Livy was doing in his History.

An Exciting Introduction
Silius Italicus, who turned Livy’s History into an epic poem, opens his account of the battle of Zama with a scene where Jupiter and Juno decide on the fate of Hannibal and Carthage:
Be Hannibal o’ercome, as fates ordain,
And let the dust of Troy in Carthage reign.

Both Polybius (unusually for him) and Livy (as we would expect) present the battle of Zama in terms of high drama. At Zama – or so they would have us believe – the fate of the world was being decided.

There are other accounts of the end of the war which do not place such terminal focus on Zama. Livy mentions Valerius Antias’s account of a major battle (not mentioned by Polybius or Livy) in which 12,000 Carthaginians were killed. And Cornelius Nepos states that, after Zama, Hannibal ‘drew together, in a few days, a numerous force … and continued to act, as well as his brother Mago, in Africa’.

But Polybius wanted to focus the glory of victory on his patron’s grandfather, and Livy wanted to end his third decade with a bang, and Zama gave them both the vehicle to do so.

Polybius, therefore, starts with a short summary of what was at stake: 

The war began afresh [with] more bitterness than the original one. For the Romans, thinking that they had been treacherously attacked, set their hearts on getting the better of the Carthaginians, and the latter, conscious of their guilt, were ready to suffer anything rather than fall into the power of the Romans...

Even more, Livy takes an entire chapter (300+ words) to set the scene. Again as we would expect, Livy’s account is much more focussed – not on the general culmination of the war between the two cities – but on the two protagonists, exploring the Romans’ ‘terror’ of fighting Hannibal in his own land, and the Carthaginians’ fear of Scipio – ‘their bogeyman, a figure of dread, the agent of Fate, a general born to bring them to destruction.’

Now, however, all eyes were turned on Scipio and Hannibal, getting ready for the final showdown.

We have seen Livy doing this before. When he exalts Hannibal, he by inference further-exalts the Romans who defeated him. His presentation of Scipio as an exemplar of Roman virtue is typical hyperbole.  But, in this context, he is also concerned to set these two superhumans against each other in order to heighten the drama of the coming climactic confrontation.

And it is into this highly-charged setting that both Polybius and Livy drop their account of a personal conference – which Livy then cranks up further by his description (not in Polybius) of their meeting:

At first neither said a word, as if each was awe-struck at the sight of the other, each lost in admiration of his opponent.

These are simply literary techniques to give his account energeia.

Did it even happen at all?
Historians have debated whether the meeting ever actually took place.
• HH Scullard (1939) thought it did, on the grounds that Polybius was a Scipionic client and ‘more than a Greek historiographer aiming at the dramatic’ – i.e. he would not have included it if it did not happen. Hmmm.
• Frank Walbank (1965) thought that it was ‘possible’ … but accepted that Polybius may have embellished a vague reference by Ennius of a personal meeting between Hannibal and Scipio.
• Richard Gabriel (2008) thought that it is ‘probably a fabrication that serves to explains why Hannibal chose to stand and fight at Zama’.
• Ronald Mellor (1999) simply declared it ‘fictitious’.

We will never know either way. What we can say is that there was a strong tradition of such a meeting in Roman literature – it is mentioned also by Nepos, Appian and Florus. And there were evidently different versions of the story – Livy mentions Valerius Antias’s version that, after his defeat, Hannibal ‘went in company with ten delegates to Scipio's camp’ – but whether that makes its actual occurrence more likely or less likely is moot.

What were Polybius and Livy trying to achieve?

Remember that, in classical historiography, authors used ‘speeches’ like plays do – as a vehicle to convey how their subjects were feeling, or to summarise a range of arguments, or to weigh up opposing positions ... or simply (as in this case) to put across their own Weltanschauung.

You will see it written in some studies that Livy based his account on Polybius. I’m not too sure – there are significant differences throughout their accounts. Maybe they used different sources. But even if they didn’t, Livy has taken the opportunity to significantly reinterpret Hannibal's speech to convey his personal interpretation of the situation, and of the two generals. Actually, in a similar way, Polybius before him had also re-fashioned his sources to present his personal portrayal of the protagonists.

Therefore – whilst it is impossible ever to reconstruct what the two men said (even of they did meet) – it IS possible to analyse how Polybius and Livy wished to portray Hannibal and Scipio.

Contrasting Portrayals – Polybius’s account of Hannibal’s speech
In Polybius:

• Hannibal starts with a condemnation of the aggressive imperialism which had tempted the two nations to anger the gods and go to war. 
• He warns Scipio of the dangers of ‘fickle τύχη’ – which he had learned not to trust – and which his own reversal of fortune belied. 
• He presents the decision of battle as a choice between good and evil, and urges Scipio to avoid the risk of defeat.
• He then offers terms - which he calls ‘secure for the Carthaginians and most honourable to you and to all the Romans’ ... but which were in fact more lenient than the treaty Scipio had already signed, and which the Carthaginians had broken.

Reading the speech, the reader is tempted to exclaim – in much the same way as Polybius presents Scipio as actually doing: ‘Get real – if that’s all you can offer, there’s no point in talking’.

Which – of course – is exactly the reaction Polybius WANTED!   Some historians have suggested that the speeches at Naragarra are 
‘imaginary reconstructions of the arguments likely to be used on such an occasion’ (Scullard, 1939).  They write as though Polybius was trying to invent ‘the kind of thing Hannibal would have said’. Nothing could be further from the truth. 
 At this critical moment of his narrative, Polybius was making Hannibal say things which would bring his history to a climax and convey the message of his writing. 

Remember why Polybius was writing his history – to warn the Greeks about the true nature of Roman imperialism. The message of his book was that Roman imperialism was a bad thing, but that the Romans were intent on conquering the world ... so you might as well resign yourself to it!  

Consequently, at this key moment, he makes Hannibal speak in terms which would be familiar to the Greeks. He laces Hannibal’s speech with allusions to Homer and other Greek writers. And he makes Hannibal say the very things which his Greek readers were saying – that Roman imperialism was bad; that peace was good; that human affairs were subject to τύχη and the Romans might lose; and that surely the best solution would be an honourable accommodation. 
These were unachievable pipedreams of course – the Romans were ALWAYS going to steamroller you – but, by putting these unrealistic statements into Hannibal’s mouth, Polybius allows his Greek readership to think such, and in thinking it realise it … and in realising it, to change their own response to Rome. 

Livy’s account of Hannibal’s speech
Livy’s account of Hannibal’s speech was very different – but, then, Livy had a different intended outcome. He, too, had a number of messages which he wished to convey, and he makes Hannibal say things so as to convey them. Broadly, the speech covers similar points to Polybius … but it is in the detail that key differences occur.

Some of them are pretty obvious. Hannibal starts and ends his speech by admitting responsibility for causing the war:

It was I that first began this war against the Roman people … I was responsible for this war.
He then declares himself glad to be surrendering to Scipio, and smiles at the irony of surrendering to the son of the general he had first fought against. 
Later in the speech he admits to Carthage’s ‘Punic faith’:
… because we lacked sincerity in seeking peace and patience in waiting for it when offered. The integrity of any peace agreement much depends on those who seek it.
One of the themes of Livy is Hannibal-as-antihero – Hannibal as the man of ‘inhuman cruelty, treachery worse than Carthaginian; nothing of truthfulness, nothing of reverence; no fear of the gods, no respect for oaths, no sense of religion’. So when we see these admissions of fault, of lies, we can see them as sops for his Roman readers along the lines of: “You see! He even admitted it himself!”

And when Hannibal compares his invasion of Italy to Scipio’s ‘roar of a Roman camp outside the walls of Carthage’, one assumes that most of Livy’s Roman readership would have responded with a proto-Churchillian ‘if-you-reaped-the-whirlwind-it-served-you-right’ attitude.

Another anti-Carthaginian character-smear is in the way Livy has Hannibal propose his terms for peace:

But perhaps we Carthaginians deserve to propose some penalties for ourselves. We are willing to concede that all the territories for which we went to war belong to you: Sicily, Sardinia, Spain, and all the Mediterranean islands lying between Italy and Africa. Since that is how the gods have ordained it, we are content to be confined within the boundaries of Africa and to see you an imperial power ruling over foreign kingdoms by land and sea.
In fact, the peace terms in Livy are the same as the peace terms in Polybius, but in Livy’s account they slide imperceptibly out of Hannibal’s reflections about Fortuna, and they are presented as a concession not a necessity. Here Livy’s stereotyped representation of Punic trickery descends into pantomime, and you can almost hear his Roman readers shouting at the page to warn Scipio of the attempt to trick him: ‘New lamps for old! He’s behind you! Don’t do it!’

In the speech, Hannibal comes across as badly as a slimy telesalesperson. On the surface he is SAYING nice things, stroking Scipio’s ego … under the surface, however, lies a cynical nastiness. 

‘Remember Marcus Atilius Regulus who once stood victorious on Carthaginian soil,’ Hannibal is made to say when warning Scipio of the dangers of tempting Fortuna:
My ancestors sued for peace, which he refused. He rode his luck to the limits and failed to rein it in; it galloped away with him.
It was not a pleasant exemplar for Hannibal to raise. Livy’s readers would indeed remember Marcus Atilius Regulus, and yes he did refuse peace and then find himself defeated by Xanthippus. But any Roman would also remember that, failing to persuade the Senate to honour his promises, Regulus chose to return to Carthage where he was tortured to death. Livy has Hannibal use Regulus as an example of the ‘chance of battle’ – fully knowing that, for his readers, Regulus was an exemplar of Roman honour and virtue ... whom the Carthaginians brutally murdered.

Much the same can be said about Hannibal’s less-than-diplomatic celebration of his successes – Trasimene, Cannae, and the deaths of P. Cornelius and Gnaeus Scipio – which were achieved, of course, at the cost of untold Roman suffering.

But Livy is doing other, less obvious, things in the reported speech he has invented for Hannibal.

The American classicist Andreola Rossi (2004) has pointed out the synkrisis (parallelism) in Livy at this point. Many Roman writers (most obviously Plutarch) wrote their histories so as to explicitly draw parallels between their subjects, and Hannibal’s speech in Livy is replete with them – Rome v Carthage, past v present, Hannibal v Scipio. Rossi suggests that, where this happens, it is so that the Romans can rehearse their superiority, and this is clearly obvious in Livy’s account: 

You are basking in success; we are in the depths. Peace is yours to give, and the rewards will bring you many blessings; peace is ours to beg for, and for us there are no honourable rewards - we beg because we must.
Thus every word of Hannibal’s speech can be interpreted as a re-affirmation for Livy’s readers of their superiority ... of the superiority and unstoppable triumph of the Virtus Romana.

There is another message in Livy-Hannibal’s treatment of Fortuna. Rossi dismisses this as ‘a rather somber and lengthy reflection on the fickleness of fortune (Polybian in tone and theme)’. But – if I might dare to challenge a Harvard Classics Professor! – I think there is more going on here than that. Just as not everybody who uses the word ‘salvation’ is necessarily Christian, talking about Fortuna does not make Livy ‘Polybian’. 

As we have seen, Livy was much more ‘religious’ than Polybius, for whom history was generally rational. When he uses the word τύχη, he is sometimes referring to the broad, unstoppable ‘movements’ of history, or sometimes the inexplicable ‘paradoxes’ of accident and chance. Reading the speeches of Hannibal and Scipio, however, one is left with the feeling that, for Livy, Fortuna was much more than random forces in history. For Livy, Fortuna was a goddess who took an active interest in what happened (one is reminded of Silius Italicus’s account of the discussions between Jupiter and Juno). And whilst Livy’s Hannibal rambled on about how Fortuna had deserted him – raising him up then crashing him down – we need to remember (with Livy’s readership) that these were the uncomprehending muttering of a pagan who didn’t understand what he was talking about!

Success and failure have long since taught me that philosophy is a better guide to action than any reliance upon Fortuna.
This is the statement, not of a true Roman who understood Fortuna, but of an atheist who had angered the gods.

Concurring Portrayals – Scipio’s speech in Polybius and Livy
Given his role as a Scipionic client, Polybius’s account of Scipio’s speech is strangely mundane (which might mean, of course, that it IS a summary of what Scipio actually said – Polybius was certainly in a position to have found out).

Polybius DOES manage to get in a comment that his hero was ‘awake to the fickleness of τύχη and as far as it was in his power he took into consideration the uncertainty of human affairs’ – essentially Polybius’s definition of the perfect general!

But, otherwise, Polybius-Scipio simply rehearses Punic blame, asks a string of rhetorical questions along the lines of ‘what am I expected to do’, and then concludes that if Hannibal is not prepared to put anything new on the table: 

‘Of what further use then is our interview? Either put yourselves and your country at our mercy or fight and conquer us.’

The whole is delivered in a resigned, tired register which – actually – rings true for a war-weary general. If you asked my opinion, I would probably be prepared to believe that Scipio actually said it.

Perhaps indeed because an accepted account of Scipio’s speech did exist, Livy’s account of Scipio’s speech is very little different to Polybius’s, which he paraphrases fairly much line-for-line – apart from a lovely little passage in 31.8 when he uses the language of Roman law-courts to describe how he had had to ‘join hands with you as with an unwilling and tricky defendant’ (in which the Latin phrase manu prope conserta has a perfect double-entendre of ‘join hands’ (in court) and ‘join battle’ (in war) .. one assumes that Livy simply could not resist the literary flourish.

The only significant difference between the two speeches comes in a reference to Fortuna, where Scipio adds:

There is no need to lecture me on the power of Fortuna … Justice and the laws of heaven gave us victory in Sicily; they have given us victory in the recent war; and they will do so again if we fight here.

We have seen that, in his comments about Fortuna, Livy-Hannibal revealed himself for the godless, wicked pagan that he was. By contrast, Livy-Scipio is presented as the exemplar Roman, who knows the key. Fortuna is not fickle. Fortuna is a goddess … and how stupid can you be not to realise that she is on the Romans’ side!

Closely connected to this, South African historian Gottfried Mader (1993) has interpreted Hannibal’s speech as ‘repented hubris (pride)’. For, as every Roman reader would know, Fortuna had not deserted Hannibal because she is fickle, she deserted him because he had been BAD … because he was proud, because he did not show Virtus Romana. And THAT was why, by contrast, Hannibal could say that, for Scipio, ‘Fortuna never let you down’ - because Scipio was good ... because he was Roman! 

Ultimately, the message in all this was not about Hannibal and Scipio AT ALL, but it was Livy’s belief that ‘things ain’t what they used to be’ and that, unless they repented, the Roman people of his own day were 'cruisin for a bruisin’. Just as he used Scipio as the very exemplar of a perfect general, Livy was in every word tainting Hannibal – out of his own mouth – as a dire warning of what happens when you lose the virtues that make you such.

Livy uses the speeches at Naragarra, yes as a high-drama setting for the opening scenes of his climactic battle, but also to deliver a moral essentially religious in its nature – if you want to be ‘on the victory side’, then you need to abandon the ways of Hannibal, and be like Scipio.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Fabius Maximus - an exercise in Roman propaganda

Everybody you read – well, everybody I have read – seems to agree that Fabius Maximus was a brilliant general and 'the man who saved Rome'.  
It is time to think again.

Primary Eulogists
Fabius Maximus was a Roman hero – given the title ‘Shield of Rome’. His contemporary, the Roman writer Ennius, who wrote an 18-book epic on the history of Rome, said of him: 
‘one man, by delaying, restored the state to us’. 
Fabius became – and seems to have remained ever since – ‘the man who saved Rome’.

By the time of Livy, this reputation had reached its zenith. Livy describes more than once how Fabius’s strategy 

‘was a considerable source of anxiety to Hannibal, who realised that at last the Romans had chosen a master of military strategy’. 
(Silius Italicus, who turned Livy's History into an epic poem, took this even further, saying that Fabius gave Hannibal ‘nightmares’.)

Livy explains how, at first, everybody criticised Fabius’s tactics, ‘calling his deliberation indolence and his caution cowardice’, but recounts how the disaster at Cannae drew forth an acknowledgement from Aemilius Paullus that Fabius’s strategy had been correct. Plutarch later expanded on this idea, seeing Cannae as the event which vindicated Fabius:

‘For that which was called cowardice and sluggishness in Fabius before the battle, immediately after the battle was thought to be no mere human calculation, nay, rather, a divine and marvelous intelligence, since it looked so far into the future and foretold a disaster which could hardly be believed by those who experienced it.’

Later Writers
And thus the legend was born. During the Renaissance, when study of the Classics became popular, Fabius’s reputation remained high. The famous Italian political writer Machiavelli praised him and – during the French invasion of Italy at the end of the 15th century – the Italian princes consciously copied Fabius’s strategy of harrying and delay. Fabian tactics were also used by the Americans against the English in the American Revolution, and by the Russians against Napoleon.

It may be my ignorance, but neither have I been able to find any modern historian who has challenged Fabius’s reputation. Words such as ‘wily’, ‘wisdom’, ‘prudence’ and ‘competence’ recur in most modern histories. Recently, American historian Michael Fronda (2010) has argued that 'Rome's effective military and diplomatic response after Cannae was greatly responsible for Hannibal's defeat', and he explains how a string of modern historians have shown the different ways in which 'strict adherence to the 'Fabian strategy' ultimately saved the Roman cause'.

In the spirit of revisionism, therefore, may I point out some caveats, which might lead you to question whether Fabius was as great a man as the Romans claimed.

Let’s start with Polybius. Polybius, as we have seen before, was too in thrall to Roman public opinion completely to deny Fabius’s skill or importance … but it will be immediately obvious to anyone reading Polybius’s History that his praise lacked the energeia of Livy and Plutarch.

Polybius describes Fabius as ‘a man of admirable character and supreme intelligence’. But he does not suggest (like Livy) that Hannibal was worried by Fabius, and he attributes the Romans' survival, not to Fabius’s tactics, but to their superiority of men and resources, and to the iron will of the Senate. 

Revealingly, again unlike Livy and Plutarch, Polybius does not say that the Romans 'came to realise' that Fabius's strategy was right - he states instead that Fabius 'forced' everyone to agree with his policy.

What lies behind this lack of enthusiasm?  Polybius, you will remember, was a client of the Scipio family. And in the period of the Second Punic War, the political clan the Fabii (of which Fabius was the head) used the reverses of war to seize political power in Rome from their rivals … the Scipios. You need to understand that, for these leading political clans, the war was as much - if not more - about gaining political power at home than defeating the Carthaginians.

Their rivalry resolved into a policy-debate about how the war should be prosecuted, and where it should be prosecuted – generally, the Scipios seem to have wanted an active war in Spain and Africa as well as an aggressive war against Hannibal in Italy; the Fabii wanted a ‘Fabian’ strategy, focussed on Italy alone. It is possible to trace this political/military wrangling throughout the events of the war.  (So Fabius’s vindictive dispute with Minucius is more comprehensible when you realise that Minucius was a political ally of the Scipio family.)

At the start of the war, the Scipios dominated policy. P Cornelius Scipio was elected Consul; he sailed for Spain and then, sending his brother Gnaeus Scipio to Spain, sailed back to Italy to attack Hannibal. 

But the failures at Trebia and Trasimene gave Fabius his opportunity to oust his rivals. Strictly illegally (for the Consul Sempronius was still alive), he got himself appointed Dictator. Then, after a brief fall from influence in 216bc, Fabius seized power again after Cannae. Then he managed to organise affairs so that his kinsman, Marcus Fabius Buteo, appointed (presumably their friends and political allies) to the vacant places in the Senate in 216bc.  Nowadays, we would say that Fabius's becoming Dictator was a coup d'état, and we would accuse Fabius Buteo of 'packing' the Senate ... words like 'tyrant' and 'despot' come to mind.

Anyway, 216bc was the start of a period of Fabian domination. Fabius Maximus was Consul in 215bc and 214bc, his son in 213bc, and he himself again 209bc, after which he was appointed princeps senatus (Leader of the Senate) for 209-203bc. At the same time, Fabius was Chief Augur and Pontifex (priest), and therefore dominated Rome’s religious life and had all the power of religion behind him. He opposed Scipio Africanus throughout his career, and only towards the end of the war did his stranglehold on Roman policy weaken. 
THIS is, no doubt, why Polybius chose the word ‘forced’! 

The REAL Fabius Maximus
Plutarch’s childhood representation of Fabius as 'Little Lamb' is a masterpiece of disinformation. In fact – as Plutarch tells us – Fabius grew into a heavyweight political leader. When news came back to Rome of the defeat at Cannae – although neither Dictator nor Consul at the time – Fabius had the political/religious influence simply to forbid people (as was the custom) to mourn in public. Next year, he ordered every Roman to take the grain harvest to the fortified cities – and ‘all those who failed to do so would have their land laid waste, their farms burnt, and they themselves would be sold into slavery’. Meanwhile, a Vestal Virgin who had sinned was buried alive, and four captured Gauls were offered as human sacrifices – this was a man who was NOT the pleasant, forgiving man that Plutarch would have us believe; he was the godfather of Roman politics, power-hungry and ruthless.

Nowadays, we are used to a press where the perversions and failings of the powerful are investigated and made public. This was not the case in those days, when powerful men had their tame historians to record events as they wanted them recording. Hannibal had Silenus and Sosylus; on the Roman side, the Second Punic War was chronicled by the annalist Fabius Pictor – and, yes, the name gives it away: he was a Fabian ... a kinsman of Fabius Maximus.

It is interesting that, whilst Livy and Plutarch used Fabius Pictor extensively, the pro-Scipio Polybius did not, complaining that he was biased. Of course he was!  
But it is from Fabius Pictor's History that the portrayal of Fabius Maximus as the ‘Saviour of Rome’ comes. Perhaps we have been too quick to accept the traditional account of Fabius Cunctator as true. 

Fabius Maximus as a general
And so, adopting this more objective view of Fabius, what do we reckon to him as a general?

Let’s take some facts:

  1. Appointed Dictator after Trasimene, Fabius indulged his religious fanaticism by ordering a whole string of religious ceremonies and tributes ... before turning to the recruitment of new armies.  (Later, in 215bc, he failed to go to relieve his fellow consul, Gracchus Sempronius, beseiged by Hannibal in Cumae, because ‘his attention was occupied first with taking fresh auspices and then with the portents which were being announced one after another, and which the soothsayers assured him would be very difficult to avert’.)   Livy, hankering after old-style ‘Roman virtue’, loved these stories – but whether they make us regard Fabius as a ‘good general’ is another matter. 
  2. Is it being a great general to sit and watch the enemy burning your fields?  That might, indeed, 'delay' Hannibal, but - the Scipios were correct - it was never going to defeat him. I know Minucius’s and Varro’s accusations in Livy are overdrawn – but do they not give an indication of the kind of things which were being said in Rome at the time … and, being fair, is there not more than a vestige of truth in them?  Ultimately, 'Fabian Strategy' was sterile - if they were to win the war, the Romans were going to have to take on Hannibal in battle and defeat him.
  3. Is it being a great general when, having trapped your enemy in a disadvantageous position, you let him escape (or choose to let him escape), fooled by a very simple and not-very-convincing trick (Ager Falernus – it was this which proved the last straw for the Romans, and led to Minucius’s elevation).
  4. According to wikipedia: ‘Fabius' own military success was small, aside from the reconquest of Tarentum in 209 BC’. For this limited victory he was awarded a magnificent triumph. And when the governor of Tarentum suggested he had played a part in recapturing the town, Fabius rejoined, ‘Certainly, had you not lost it, I would have never retaken it.’ BOTH these incidents have the sniff of a powerful man jealously milking his (limited) achievements for all he was worth. 
  5. Meanwhile, were the real victories in the years after 216bc not achieved by the war-hero Marcellus – the so-called ‘Sword of Rome’?  And all the signs (as one would expect) are that Fabius hated and resented Marcellus his successes. It is significant that Marcellus was not awarded a triumph for his victories. 

Fabius Maximus as a Politician
Finally, here are two stories which reflect on Fabius's conduct and methods as a poltician ... and which, I believe, show him to have been a vindictive manipulator.

1. as you read the following story in Livy 23.31 for the year 215bc, ask yourself who controlled the augurs, and who gained from Marcellus’s replacement, and reflect on what it tells us about Fabius, and his political methods:
'Marcellus was elected [Consul] by a quite unanimous vote in order that he might take up his magistracy at once. Whilst he was assuming the duties of the consulship thunder was heard; the augurs were summoned and gave it as their opinion that there was some informality in his election. The patricians spread a report that as that was the first time that two plebeian consuls were elected together, the gods were showing their displeasure. Marcellus resigned his office and Q. Fabius Maximus was appointed in his place.'
2. and secondly, you may wish to reflect on a story from Livy, when Marcellus - having defeated Syracuse and pacified Sicily, in 211bc handed over his command and asked to return to Italy.  The Senate allowed Marcellus to return, but refused him permission to bring back his army with him.  Marcellus returned to Rome as a hero but, when he asked to be given a Triumph for his victories, a group of senators argued that, seeing as the army was still in Sicily, he could not be awarded a triumph - 'since he had not brought the war to a close' (Livy 26.21).  So his request for a Triumph was refused, and instead the Senate agreed as a compromise to award him an 'ovation', a lesser honour.  Again, who do you think orchestrated the opposition to Marcellus in the Senate?  Is it possible to see the political spectre of Fabius behind shoddy treatment? 

Fabius Maximus was not a very nice man – he was a ruthless and deeply conservative political bully who used his family connections and religious positions to become Dictator, if not in name in practice.

And also, he was not all that good a general.